Affluenza and Why Being Rich May Get You Out of Jail Time After a DWI

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch, drove a pickup truck pickup at up to 70 mph drunk. He caused a crash that killed four pedestrians who were standing at the roadside.

In a case that has made national headlines, a judge sentenced him to 10 years’ probation. The reason? He came from a rich family.

Ethan

That’s not a totally accurate summary but it’s the way the case has played out in the media. The judge sentenced Couch after hearing a psychologist called by the defense, arguing he suffers from “affluenza,” a condition in which children from rich families behave irresponsibly due to a sense of entitlement.

Before the sentencing the psychologist, Dick G. Miller, testified that the teen’s life could be salvaged with a couple of years of treatment and no contact with his parents.

Miller explained Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called the teen a product of “affluenza,” a condition whereby his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between his behavior and its consequences.

According to the Star Telegram, Miller testified that the teen was never disciplined, and enjoyed freedoms “no young person should have,” including the freedom to drive since the age of 13.

“The teen never learned to say that you’re sorry if you hurt someone. If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”

Local station KHOU reported that Miller told the hearing Couch’s family “felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.” The defense argued that Couch’s parents were as much to for the crime as their son, and that Couch’s life could be turned around if he cut off all contact with them for a one- to two-year period of intense psychological treatment.

The story has led to much discussion about so-called “affluenza.” In a subsequent story Associated Press quoted experts who said “affluenza,” should not be a criminal defense. The term was first used in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.”

Dr. Gary Buffone, a Jacksonville, Fla., psychologist it has since been used to describe a condition in which children — usually from richer families — feel a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses fort their bad behavior, and occasionally “dabble in drugs and alcohol.” He said the term was never intended to be used as a defense in a criminal trial or to justify such behavior.

The case has led to something of a perception that although you may not be able to get away with murder if you are rich, you can get away with intoxication manslaughter – the charge in this case.

Eric Boyles, who lost a wife and daughter in the crash, said told CNN: “There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country.”

However “affluenza”, is less about being rich than about the consequences of a dissolute lifestyle that money may have contributed to. Couch appears to have grown up in an argument dominated household where parenting was poor.  The judge likely factored in factors such as rehabilitation and restitution, when sentencing Couch. The sentence may be as much about not punishing a teen for the inadequacies of his parents as it is about wealth.

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